Dumenco's Media People

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ASSME Chief Aaron Gell on Glossy Refugees With Too Much Time On Their Hands

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Sometimes a little gallows humor goes a long way.

Last fall, Aaron Gell, the newly unemployed executive editor of Radar magazine -- Radar had just folded a third and final time -- started up a tongue-in-cheek alternative to ASME, the American Society of Magazine Editors. Gell called his group ASSME -- the American Society of Shitcanned Media Elites -- and immediately hit a nerve. Initially just an excuse to continue to party on the deck of the Titanic (my colleague Nat Ives covered ASSME's holiday event last December in TalentWorks), ASSME has morphed in rather interesting ways. For this latest installment of Dumenco's Media People -- a continuing series of conversations with media grandees -- I talked to Gell about the group on the eve of its June 24 Swag-a-Thon, a benefit for Housing Works, a New York charitable organization. (As the invite puts it: "At the door, you'll be invited to donate a piece of swag, some branded promotional item you've been holding onto for no good reason. That Pets.com onesie? Bring it! Your Dancing With the Stars headband? That too! These items will be raffled, with 100% of the proceeds going straight to supporting homeless people with AIDS and HIV.")

Simon Dumenco: So you're having this ASSME event at Fontana's, a Lower East Side bar. I guess you didn't have the budget for the Waldorf Astoria or the Frederick P. Rose Hall, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center -- the kind of places ASME likes to hold events.

Aaron Gell: I've heard that the Waldorf is offering rooms for $199 a night now, so maybe next time.

Dumenco: Remember the ASME luncheons at the Waldorf for the National Magazine Awards? Chicken or fish loaf, and they both tasted the same.

Gell: I have fond memories of those days. The food was terrible, true, but we mattered!

Dumenco: Yeah, remember when magazines mattered?

Gell: It's really amazing to me how quickly they seem to have lost some indefinable magic. You can smell the fear, which isn't what you want.... Better to smell the fragrance strips.

Dumenco: It's eerie and disturbing. Although I'm expecting to see Twitter Monthly any minute now.

Gell: Someone is surely cooking that up. Free content!

Dumenco: Right. [laughter] Well, talk to me about the genesis of ASSME.

Gell: Well, Radar folded on Oct. 24, 2008. I can't remember my wedding anniversary, but I can't get that date out of my head. ASSME started as a conversation with a few former colleagues about how much fun we had at the last Radar party, which wound up being a wake, and how we needed to throw another. The ASSME name came along later, since everything worth doing must be branded.

Dumenco: The Village Voice described ASSME as "organization for purposes unclear, or not quite known, or just for drinking." So want to set the record straight? Mostly for drinking? Commiseration? Whimsical self-pity? Anger management? Hooking up?

Gell: Well, all of those things, I think. It's evolving. But to be a little sincere for just a second, it's really just about having a way to go through this experience together -- seeing the industry that we love fall apart. Feels better to do it as a group than to sit at home being fretful.

Dumenco: You don't charge dues, so how do you count your membership, per se?

Gell: It really was a joke when it started, but immediately I was flooded with really heartfelt e-mails saying, "Thank you soooo much!" and I realized that the idea was actually serving as a sort of catharsis. But I don't really count membership at this point. We've got several hundred on the mailing list, several hundred more on Facebook. But at some point I would like to come up with an actual membership reason for people to join. Phase Two.

Dumenco: Radar folding feels prescient now. The canary in the coal mine. Radar got really good at folding, over and over again, and sort of paved the way for other magazines.

Gell: Yes, that's interesting. Radar folded a few weeks before the iceberg hit, and at that time it was actually still possible for us to blame our funders, blame each other, cite a million mistakes we all made. And a few weeks later it was clear nothing would have made a difference! But having that head start was a real gift, because I think it let us go through the process a bit earlier and come out the other side at the right moment. Which, I think, is why ASSME hit a nerve.

Dumenco: You ever hear from ASME ever? They must be enjoying the joke, even if they can't say it out loud.

Gell: Only about paying my dues, which are in arrears.

Dumenco: [laughter] You know, Jeff Bercovici [formerly media blogger at Portfolio.com, now at DailyFinance], whom I'm quite fond of, wrote that "Jeff Bercovici's Guide to Un(and Re)Employment" piece for ASSME.org, and one of the things he wrote was, "Stop fetishizing ink and paper. It's amazing that this even needs to be said in the year 2009, but there are still way too many journalists who see writing for print as somehow more credible, more real, more grown-up than writing for the web." But what's the point of magazines if they can't be fetishized? I mean, what's always thrilled me about them is their beauty, their objectness. Which is why I think so many people assumed that, say, Cond� Nast would be so much more immune to the meltdown than it's proven to be. Because fashion, as an editorial category, is still way sexier in print than it is on the web.

Gell: Agreed. But a lot of that magical quality came from a sense of invulnerability. It was a projection. Now that that's not there, it's hard to see them in the same light. But having said that, I think that can come back as the economy stabilizes.

Dumenco: Whereas gossip can be sexier when it's, like, Gawker, than, say, the National Enquirer.

Gell: Us Weekly has a certain sex appeal.

Dumenco: True, but somehow less timely magazines -- the monthlies -- you can be more hopeful about. You can see a place in the world for monthlies, as opposed to weekly. Especially Time and Newsweek. Anyway, speaking of the triumph of the internet, it's telling that ASSME.org is turning out to be a surprisingly robust web site.

Gell: Yeah, the web site has been really the big project lately. We've got ten or so contributors doing daily content, including Drew Grant, formerly of Jossip, and Sheila McClear, formerly of Gawker, and Steve Huff, who's a great true-crime blogger turning his investigative genius to matters like "American Idol" feuds. And we sold our first ad, to American Apparel, which totally seems to get what we're doing and has given us a massive boost at the perfect time. And I'm trying to figure out the next phase. We're planning to revamp the site, and looking for great designers and web-heads to help us take it to the next level.

Dumenco: Your contributors are working pro-bono, right?

Gell: Yep, they just liked what we were doing and felt like they wanted to support it. Which blows me away. Although with advertising revenue coming in, that's already started to change, and I've recently been able to start paying a few of the most active contributors.

Dumenco: Would you like to take this opportunity to announce that ASSME has a presumed valuation of $200 million, and that you will not be offering equity to your work-for-free bloggers?

Gell: I'm bound by law not to discuss our valuation at this time. [laughter]

Dumenco: It does feel like it's evolving into something of not just whimsical value, but something that could become a real organization, a real support group, for a particular creative class, with dues-paying members.

Gell: I have been looking into making it a nonprofit, and figuring out some new ways to support journalists. Like, I just talked to a guy I know about curating a readings series for us. Lots of things bubbling away.

Dumenco: Of course, if you go legit and become a real not-profit, you'll need a less jokey name.

Gell: Yeah, already we've had the Wall Street Journal, Newsday and CNN refuse to name us.

Dumenco: No shit!

Gell: Exactly.

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Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco

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